Growing up in Working Class Youngstown — Leaving the Valley

vintage youngstown postcardDid you grow up thinking you would always live in Youngstown? Both my wife and I did. Until we didn’t. Until then, we knew there was a world outside the Mahoning Valley. We just never thought we’d live somewhere else in it.

This is not a post about the economic troubles of Youngstown. I moved from Youngstown to near Columbus in 1976 to work with the collegiate ministry I am still employed with. Back then, they did not allow you to work at the school from which you graduated. Since I went to Youngstown State, it meant going elsewhere. After a year, I moved to Toledo. My fiance, now my wife, followed the next year, and we were married in 1978. Subsequent assignments with work led to moves to Cleveland for nearly ten years, and then to Columbus for the last thirty, longer than the twenty-two I lived in Youngstown.

I’ve been thinking what an interesting thing it is that I have been writing weekly about growing up in Youngstown for five years now, when it has been more than forty years since I lived there. People like to say that “you can take me out of Youngstown, but you can’t take Youngstown out of me.” Sometimes I cannot believe that over forty years have passed because the memories of people and places and experiences, of school days and family celebrations are as vivid as if they were just a few years ago.

Writing about Youngstown has helped me see how growing up in the Valley not only has shaped me in many ways, but so many of us that grew up here. We like certain foods like good Italian cooking that we can only find in Youngstown–as we did on a recent visit back. We compare every park to Mill Creek Park. And we’ve talked about that quite a bit!

There is a certain way of approaching life that says “you can knock me down, you can shut me out, but I will keep showing up.” Maybe it was those parents who grew up in the Depression era. There is a saying, sometimes attributed, probably erroneously, to Winston Churchill that goes, “When you are going through hell, keep going.” I think it was someone from Youngstown who first said it, probably reflecting on life in the factories with its heat and dangers, boom times, strikes, and layoffs. That mentality has stood me in good stead.

Joni Mitchell, the folk rocker many of us grew up with has a line from The Big Yellow Taxi that I was thinking about recently in another context, but applies to many of us who grow up in Youngstown, and perhaps other places as well. She sings, “don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone.” There was so much of Youngstown that I saw or heard about that I never gave a thought to while I lived there. I saw Oak Hill Cemetery many times but had no idea of the history of the city memorialized within its bounds. I only knew of Volney Rogers as the name of a junior high rival school, and not as a visionary who saved a place of beauty that continues to delight one hundred years after his death. I never grasped what an extraordinary treasure the Butler was nor what a renaissance man its founder was as historian, industrialist, philanthropist, a friend of presidents, and an art collector. I don’t think I realized how all the neighborhood restaurants and local bars and family groceries made the town such a great place.

I don’t think myself a traitor to my town because I left. Most of our families did not live here from the founding of the city (there are some, I’ve discovered). My wife’s mother came here as a girl of ten. My father was born in Warren, my mother outside of Pittsburgh. We’ve always been a nation on the move. But I do find myself thankful for those who have come to or stayed in Youngstown. I had the chance to meet Bill Lawson of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society recently, and came away even more deeply impressed with his and his staff’s efforts to preserve and pass along the history of the Valley. I’m so glad that Jack Kravitz is still making his famous corned beef and Reuben sandwiches. Jim Tressel seems to have done so much to develop Youngstown State far beyond what it was when we were students there. I could go on.

I started writing to understand some of the memories of growing up in working class Youngstown and how that had shaped my life. As I kept writing, I discovered a story of which I’d only heard hints when I lived there. It has enriched my life and made me proud of the place where I lived. It has taught me what makes a good place, lessons I hope I can bring to my own place. If nothing else, all of us who have left have a mission to teach the world what good Italian food tastes like! For my friends who remain in the Valley, I hope that remembering the good strengthens your pursuit of the good in your place. I admire what you are doing more than you can know. I look forward to telling more of the stories of the Valley, the stories that have shaped us, the stories in which we live.

Review: The Poppy War

the poppy war

The Poppy WarR. F. Kuang. New York: Harper Collins, 2018.

Summary: First of a fantasy trilogy, focuses on an orphan woman, Rin, who escapes from her village by testing into a military academy, overcomes prejudice, only to discover disturbing powers that reveal her true identity, thrusting her into life-changing choices as war breaks out between Nikan and the Federation.

Rin is an orphan in a remote village of the country of Nikan, facing an undesirable marriage match. She determines to take and pass the test to win a place at Sinegard, the country’s military academy. She ends up achieving the highest place, only to find she is an outsider among the children of the country’s warlords and other elite families. Nezha, son of a warlord, despises her, even as she becomes his principal rival. Prevented from training in martial arts, she finds a mentor, Jiang, who trains her in older ways. In an annual match, she defeats Nezha, but awakens a fire within that only with the help of Jiang she comes to understand.

She becomes his only apprentice in Lore, learning to commune with the sixty four gods of their pantheon. She learns her “fire” is connected with the god of fire, the Phoenix, but Jiang discourages her from seeking the power, which he believes will destroy her. Her training ends when war breaks out anew between Nikan and the Federation. When the Federation is on the verge of taking Sinegard, and Nezha, who has become a friend, is severely wounded, Rin summons the fire, destroying her enemies and barely avoiding destroying everything.

When other surviving students of Sinegard are assigned to different divisions, Rin is assigned to a different group, the Cike, a group of crazy, powerful misfits, all able to summon the power of a different god, led by Altan, an incredible fighter Rin had admired and felt drawn to. Altan is, so it is thought, the one remaining Speerly, of a race obliterated in the Second Poppy War when betrayed into the hands of the Federation.

As she works with Altan, and is frustrated in her ability to summon her power, she comes more and more to face the question of whether to fully surrender to the god, which likely would lead to the destruction of her personality. As the war goes badly, descending into genocide and betrayals, Rin comes to understand her own identity, to the choice she must make, and the terrible consequences that could follow.

The fantasy world created by R.F. Kuang, a doctoral student in Modern Chinese studies creates a world similar to a Chinese, east Asian context, with threatening island nations and another power, Hesperia, that sounds like the U.S. It is also a world of shamans, of opium and psychedelic use, sometimes to attain transcendence, more often to feed and fail to satisfy addiction. There is brutality–rape, genocide, and gruesome deaths. Prospective readers will need to consider whether such content is appropriate for them.

Even with her petulance, we are drawn to the fierce resolve of Rin, her journey of self-discovery, and the choices she must make, a choice between the wisdom of Jiang, and the quest for power of Altan. As conditions worsen, we wonder whether Rin and her people will be able to stop the relentless Federation, perhaps aided by the apparent betrayals and flight of the Nikan Empress. The intensity of the book continues to grow from the rivalries of the academy to the desperation of the fight. It was one of those books you wanted to read whenever you had the chance.

The second book, The Dragon Republic will be out in the summer of 2019. I’ll be looking for it.


Reading When Others Want to Talk


Screenshot of GIF posted on BookBub

Have you ever been trying to read when others want to talk and you end up reading the same paragraph over and over again? Do you find yourself internally “clinching up” and having to stifle your impulse to scream “shut up!”

Unless we decide to become hermits (who still depend on others for the necessities of life), a reality of life is that there will be times when we want to read and others want to talk. Even more, sometimes they want to talk with us!

Here are a few thoughts of how I (very imperfectly) deal with this dilemma:

  1. Sometimes you just need to give it up and choose relationships over books. Especially with spouses or partners or children who want to talk with us. Does it really pay to lose those you love to lose yourself in a book? I hope you don’t have to think too long about that!
  2. This also applies to social gatherings. Most people don’t assume this is a time for reading unless it has been arranged as a reading party–yes there is such a thing, and I’ve written about it.
  3. Try reading when others are sleeping, although this means sleeping on a different schedule.
  4. Agree on times that are “reading times” as a family. For the sake of the talkers, don’t exceed them! People will more readily allow you time to read if they know when you will be available–and you are.
  5. Sometimes, finding a quiet place, like a library reading room can work if that is the shared expectation. It only takes one loud talker on a cell phone to spoil it!
  6. If you want to read where there are conversations going on that don’t involve you but can be distracting, choose books that engage your attention, and don’t involve careful reading of densely articulated ideas.
  7. Depending on how you and other people in your household feel about it, and their bodily needs, the bathroom can sometimes offer a temporary refuge–emphasis on temporary!
  8. Weather permitting, is there a place outside your home that might be secluded, perhaps a “readers garden”? (I draw this term from a nearby bookstore of the same name).
  9. Speaking of bookstores, these also sometimes have alcoves or seating that allow for reading, and should be places that respect that.
  10. Sometimes, the best answer that combines reading and sociability is to read aloud together. Maybe you can even give each member of the family or group a chance to share a passage of what they are reading.

Reading is a conversation with an invisible author and requires our full attention. So do conversations with people. Most of the time, trying to multitask means we end up doing both badly, present to neither conversation. At least part of our screen time on cell phones is also reading–texts, comments, news, and shopping sites. Perhaps the offense of not being present happens here more than anywhere. Sometimes we are more present with what is on the screen than the person we are sitting with.

It all comes down, I guess, to which conversation we really want to be in.


Review: Righteous by Promise

Righteous by Promise

Righteous by Promise (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Karl Deenick. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A biblical theology of circumcision, beginning with Abraham’s being reckoned righteous on the basis of faith in God’s promised seed, who would bless the nations, through its significance in the law of Moses, and fulfillment in the work of Christ.

Male circumcision. The cutting and removal of the foreskin. It is a defining sign of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendents. To this day, bris or circumcision is a public celebration in Jewish communities, recognizing the inclusion of a male child into the covenant that began with Abraham, witnessed by family and friends, surrounded by ceremony and prayer, and celebrated with food.

It became a point of controversy as early Christianity spread beyond its Jewish roots, with some arguing for its practice to include non-circumcised Gentile men in the community of believers. Others, notably the Apostle Paul argued against this, that identifying with Christ by faith and in baptism was sufficient for inclusion in the church. The word, both in its literal meaning and applied metaphorically to the heart or even the ears comes up throughout scripture. Yet Karl Deenick, in making the case for this work, contends that beyond brief surveys, there has been no comprehensive study of scripture, formulating a biblical theology of circumcision.

This work remedies that, in Deenick’s study of texts in Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua and the rest of the Old Testament, and in his careful exegesis of key New Testament texts where the word is used in Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, Romans 2-4, and Galatians. He begins with Genesis 15 and 17, and the statements of Abraham believing and being reckoned righteous, and Abraham receiving the covenant sign of circumcision with the exhortation to walk faithfully and blamelessly and to keep covenant.

These words arise in various forms throughout the Old Testament material. Deenick traces these passages, and contends that blamelessness did not consist in sinless adherence to the law, but rather in faith in Abraham’s “seed” and the sacrifices that removed sin’s guilt, anticipating the fulfillment of the promise, thus being “righteous by promise.” He notes the passages that speak of uncircumcised hearts among those circumcised of body, referring to self-justifying efforts that fail to acknowledge one’s sin and humbly look to God’s promise.

His discussion in the New Testament centers on Paul’s letters with brief discussion of Acts 7, and an especially lengthy discussion of Romans 2-4. While there is different language and emphases, Deenick shows that Christ is the fulfillment of the promise of which circumcision was a sign, a visible reminder that the hope of the world was the “seed” of Abraham. Because the sign is fulfilled in Christ, and because the promise of righteousness through faith in Christ, circumcision was no longer necessary for inclusion in God’s people. True circumcision is the circumcision of the heart, that removes the hardness of heart that fails to humbly depend upon God and walk in God’s ways. This comes not by human effort but by the gift of the Spirit, working God’s resurrection life and righteousness in us.

Deenick carefully unravels textual details that often puzzle readers or are glossed over. He helps us understand both the significance of this somewhat puzzling sign, and why its practice was not required in the Christian movement. He models careful intertextual reading that both honors the distinctive context and contribution of particular texts while elaborating the consistent testimony to “righteousness by promise” throughout the canon.

Mystery Detectives

Watson and Holmes

Watson and Holmes, Sidney Paget, Public Domain

I am probably what you might call a middling mystery fan. A check of Goodreads shows that I’ve shelved 33 mysteries since 2011, which would suggest I read about four mysteries a year. Nevertheless, it is a genre I enjoy, and recently, I figured out one of the reasons why. The detectives.

This dawned on my while reviewing Fall of a Cosmonaut by Stuart M. Kaminsky. I realized that one of the reasons I was really enjoying the book was because of Chief Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov. Rostnikov combines something of a mystic’s sensibilities with strong relationships, shrewd observations, and bureaucratic savvy.

From Sherlock Holmes on, mystery writers have created series around a distinctive character. In our childhoods, many of us were fascinated by the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. My son had a fascination for a time with Encyclopedia Brown. For some of us, our introduction as adults to mystery came through one of Agatha Christie’s many mysteries with Hercule Poirot or kindly but observant Miss Marple. Perhaps it was Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, inspirations for many Fifties TV detectives. Others of us were dawn to Lord Peter Wimsey, rich, something of a dilettante, the archetypal English gentleman, eventually joined by Harriet Vane.

We had a season of reading Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries. In this case you got a whole entourage of daring sleuths–Amelia, Emerson and Ramses at the head. I’ve enjoyed the cerebral, art-loving British sleuths: P. D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Dalgliesh writes poetry and Morse loves the opera. More recently, I’ve been discovered an entirely different character in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, troubled by memories of Vietnam, the loss of his wife, and ghosts of the Civil War. He breaks all the rules, and yet solves cases and brings people to book. Not entirely sure what I think of him but he is intriguing. Then at the other end is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, whose spiritual insights into human nature combine with observational skills in solving crime. Then there are the gritty women like Kinsey Millhone and Dr. Kay Scarpetta.

I could go on and on and I’m sure I’ve omitted one of your favorites. I hope you will talk about him or her in your comments. Part of the delight in reading different mysteries is the sheer uniqueness of these very different characters. One of the things that hooks me into a good series is a character to whom I’m drawn. I especially enjoy writers whose characters grow in insight, self-understanding and depth over time. Lord Peter Wimsey and Adam Dalgliesh stand out to me as examples.

There is a common element that I think draws me as well. It is a quality of attentiveness. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes remarks at one point, “You see, but you do not observe.” It seems that all good detectives notice what others miss, perhaps because of prejudice, haste, or distraction. It also seems that another quality I would emulate is a persistent curiosity. They keep observing, asking questions, tracking down threads. Remember Columbo’s “Just one more thing!” Then there is patience, a comfort with ambiguity that doesn’t force a solution when all the pieces are in place. I value that all these are people who take time to think and reflect–and then act when the time is ripe. They neither act without thinking, nor think without acting. Above all, each of these qualities are focused toward righting wrongs and making the world a bit more just.

All of these seem good qualities not only for detectives, but for life. After all, perhaps the greatest mystery is found in each one of our lives. There are depths in our own being that we can spend a life understanding, as is the case with any other person close to us–parents, spouses or partners, friends, colleagues and children. There is the mystery of discerning the path before us. Even if we believe in a God who guides us, it often takes attentiveness, curiosity, patience, thought, reflection, and pursuing justice to discern that path. Perhaps this is what I appreciate in reading detective mysteries–they remind me how to live.

Review: Less of More

less is more

Less of MoreChris Nye. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that the American dream is making us miserable and that the vision of the kingdom turns the American dream upside down, leading us to a truly rich life.

Chris Nye proposes that the American dream is killing us. Visions of unlimited growth are pressing up against the operating limits of the only place where we can live. Depression and suicide among the young are rising. Our politics are mired in discord pitting groups who share a common citizenship against one another. Nye writes, “we never had more than we do now, and we’ve never been more depressed about it,”

Nye’s challenge in this book is the counter-cultural message of Jesus that we must lose our lives to save them. He contends that the American dreams of growth, self-sufficiency, fame, power, and wealth are gained at the cost of our souls. In chapters on each of these “dreams” he articulates the alternative the gospel of Jesus offers.

He speaks to our infatuation with growth, especially the infatuation among Christians with church growth and measuring goodness by bigness. He counters that the message of the gospel is one of “pace,” of keeping pace with God’s often slow but certain work of transformation. He challenges the hyper-individualism of our culture and the idea that we are more connected than ever with the reality that many are more isolated than ever. He observes the gospel alternative of the connectedness of the welcoming table. He contrasts the quest for fame and gaining a name for oneself with the practice of hiddenness and the downward journey exemplified by Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier at the L’Arch Communities.

The culture defines greatness in terms of power. Nye proposes the humble and vulnerable community, where we reveal rather than hide weakness, and stoop to serve and protect each other. Finally we define ourselves by how much we are worth, by the wealth we have accumulated. Nye invites us to discover that while saving might feel good, giving feels great.

Nye concludes with a pointed challenge. Despite dreams of American greatness, history tells us that the American Epoch will end, the Empire will fall. Christian hope has survived the fall of every empire and challenges us to consider to which we have given our allegiance. He writes, “To follow Jesus is to follow him out of America and into the kingdom of God, from our own weak, man-made houses and into the mansions he has built that await us.”

I wouldn’t be surprised that there is pushback to this book (and perhaps this review). We want both the American dream and to have Jesus to as our eternal insurance policy. It seems to me that Nye is on good ground here in arguing that these are diametrically opposed to one another and that we can’t have both. Jesus himself said that we can’t have two masters, and the truth is that both the American dream and the call of the kingdom of God are a call to serve a master. But Nye goes further. He names the things that make are making us miserable, and the alternative life of the kingdom that restores wholeness. Nye diagnoses our American sickness. The question is whether we will recognize our dis-ease, and what can make us well.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.



Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Zedaker’s Farm and Pony Rides


Zedaker’s Anjon Acres, photo by author, taken June 22, 2019.

Did you ever go for pony rides at Zedaker’s? Riding lessons? My wife and her girl friend (still friends 60 years later!) remember going for pony rides as kids. They lived nearby in Brownlee Woods, so it was very convenient. We never made it over there from the West side.

I was reminded of this recently when we drove by what is now called Zedaker’s Anjon Acres a few weeks ago. [The Anjon combines the names of Ann and John Zedaker who owned the farm together until John passed in 2010.] Then this week, I saw  an old coupon from “Zedaker’s Pony Farm” posted in the “I Grew Up in Youngstown” Facebook group. I decided, I have to write about that!

According to Joseph G. Butler, the Zedaker family was one of the pioneer families of Youngstown. John Zedaker moved to Youngstown from Pennsylvania and fought in the War of 1812. They originally owned land near what is now Zedaker Street on the South side of Youngstown. Later the family acquired farmland in Boardman Township where Jacob Zedaker was born. His son, Marcellus W. Zedaker, acquired the land, 100 acres, where the present farm is located, in 1864, on the border of Boardman and Poland Townships, on the Poland side of the line.

Marcellus, his son, and grandson (“Jack”) farmed the land, growing hay and corn, and raising dairy cattle. When Jack developed arthritis, he decided to convert the farm to a horse farm, beginning in 1948. John Campbell Zedaker III, gave his first riding lessons that year at age 11 For years they offered pony rides with ponies led by young workers at the farm, as well as riding lessons. Ann was one of John’s students and they married in 1969. In the 1970’s family members sold off parcels of the farm for development. John and Ann took over ownership of the remaining 11 acres in 1977. They continued the pony rides until 1984 when John’s mother retired.

In the late 1990’s Ann and John renamed the farm Zedaker’s Anjon Acres. They remodeled the barn, adding an indoor arena, enabling them to give year-round lessons. They also offer a Therapy Alpaca program and riding lessons for those 8 years old and above. They teach English as opposed to Western riding, a style relying on posture and form. In addition to their own “very gentle” horses, they offer facilities for boarding. John’s great niece, Mia, offers lessons as well as the Therapy Alpaca program.

In addition to his work with the farm, John Campbell Zedaker III was a member and captain of the Mahoning Valley Polo Club for over 40 years, the corporate secretary of Moore Peterson Insurance, and a board member of the Potential Development School for Autism. But perhaps his greatest contribution was the delight he gave generations of children on his ponies, and the skill and self-confidence he instilled in the many riders he instructed. After his death from lymphoma in 2010, Ann has carried on the business. The website describes her role in the business as follows:

“Ann has extensive experience showing and training hunters and jumpers and more recently has logged thousands of miles competing in competitive trail and endurance rides. She coordinates the lesson program and barn activities, and also has a real knack for diagnosing and treating horse ailments including lameness.”

In a time when so much has changed around Youngstown, it was delightful to drive past and still see the Zedaker name and an active operation on the site so many remember for its pony rides.

You may contact them at:

Zedaker’s Anjon Acres
5375 Youngstown Poland Rd.
Poland, Oh. 44514
Ph: (330) 757-3445


Review: Fall of a Cosmonaut

fall of a cosmonaut.jpg

Fall of a Cosmonaut (Porfiry Rostnikov #13), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press, 2000.

Summary: Chief Inspector Rostnikov and his team are charged with investigating three cases, a missing cosmonaut, a stolen film, and a brutal murder in a Paranormal Research Institute, only the first of the murders in the course of the story.

My son often manages to find books I probably never would have noticed that end up as fascinating reads. This book was such a case. It is actually the thirteenth installment in Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series and the real find here is the character of Rostnikov who combines the savvy political instincts necessary to survive in a cutthroat Russian bureacracy with an intuition about human behavior that leads him to surround himself with shrewd associates, and solve crimes.

In this installment, there is not one, but three cases that his boss, the Yak, has assigned him, expecting results. One is a cosmonaut that has disappeared, along with secret knowledge of events on the Mir space station, knowledge that others have already died without revealing, the most recent by a swift injection from an umbrella-bearing man that is following Rostnikov and his son Iosef, as they travel to the village where Tsimion Vladovka grew up.

In the second case, a movie director, Yuri Kriskov has just completed what is adverted to be a great epic on the life of Leo Tolstoy. Then he receives word that the movie and its negatives have been stolen, and are being held for a ransom that if not paid will result both in the destruction of the movie and the death of Kriskov. It turns out that this is a plot of an assistant, Valery Grachev who is in love with Vera, Kriskov’s wife, and Vera, who wants to be rid of Yuri. Sasha Tkach and Elena Timofeyeva are assigned to this case, trying to find the manic genius who has stolen the film, and is seeking a way to kill Yuri.

The third case involves the gruesome death by claw hammer of a sleep and dream researcher at a Paranormal Studies Institute. Emil Karpo and his understudy Zelech are assigned this one. Zelech is sidetracked by a woman researcher who suspects him of special abilities. Karpo collects shoes, finds a suspect who is a reclusive researcher who claims he is framed, and homes in on a jealous fellow scientist good at covering tracks.

Rostnikov has the skill to adeptly counsel each both on the cases and their personal lives. Karpo needs a personal life. Tkach is estranged from his wife. Elena and his son Iosef are engaged. Zelech is single. They eventually unravel each case, but not before others die and their own lives in several instances are endangered. The cases also provide “information”  that “the Yak” can use to advance his own ambitions, and his ability to control and manipulate others.

I mention all the figures associated with the cases because, like any good Russian novel, keeping track of the names and who is doing what is more than half the battle! The narrative keeps moving back and forth between the cases briskly enough that we don’t lose the thread of any of them as we move to the climax and resolution of each.

Altogether, there are sixteen numbers in Kaminsky’s Rostnikov series. I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading all of them, but I did pick up another one as a result of reading this. I think one of the most intriguing thing about mysteries is the distinctive character of the detectives–Holmes, Poirot, J. B. Fletcher, Kay Scarpetta, Robicheaux, Maigret, and Rostnikov–each seems a world different from the others and the delight is as much in the depths of these characters as in the resolution of these cases. I think I’m going to have to modify the bibliophile’s complaint and say, “So many series and so little time!”

Do We Need to Fight Over Books?


Image by RyanMcGuire via Pixabay

A couple of interesting things came across my screen today that suggest that even book lovers may act in very unlovely ways toward each other. One was an article on Literary Hub titled “Chuck Wendig on the Time He Enraged a Bunch of Tolkienites.” It seems that the author committed the unforgiveable sin of admitting on Twitter that he just could get through The Lord of the Rings. He learned that you don’t question this holy trilogy of books. Angry Tolkienites even made YouTube videos in response. I read that and thought, “These people need to get a life!”

Now I am a fan of LOTR, having read the books five or so times over the course of my life. But I have many friends like Wendig–and we are still friends! A friend of mine saw this story and commented, “I just don’t understand people’s rage against someone who likes different books, movies, etc than they do.” Truth is, I don’t either. This is like getting into a spat over what flavor of ice cream is best. It seems to me far more fun to celebrate how good ice cream is in all its flavors.

It seems to me that it ought to be that way among lovers of books. I’ve hosted a Facebook page over the past year liked by over 2000 lovers of books. I like the thought both that there are so many like me who delight in this wonderful gift of what we find between the covers of a book (or on our e-reader) but also how different we all are. As I write, people have been responding to a question I posted on how they organize their books. It is fun to see the differences between those who have highly organized systems and those who say, “organize?” I’ve enjoyed times when people could disagree without becoming disagreeable, and discover different perspectives. For example, a recent discussion explored whether you could help a reading averse college grad to come to love reading. There were those who said “impossible,” those who suggested ideas from their own experience, and a few who said, “I was once one of those people and now I love books.”

That brings me to the other thing that crossed my screen. I’m in another Facebook book group, and saw a post from an admin who apologized for an individual who was bullying others in the group, and informed everyone that the individual had been “blocked.” I’d seen similar messages elsewhere on Facebook, but never in a book group. I did not see the offending posts so have no idea what was said, but I guess people can be trolls, or at least very obnoxious, anywhere. I appreciate admins like this one who act promptly to keep pages or groups from going toxic.

It is ironic, and frankly puzzling to me, that there are people who love reading, but haven’t had their minds opened enough by their reading to discover that people see the world differently, have good reasons for doing so, and that people like different things. I suspect it has to do with wounds in other parts of their lives that take more than books to heal. Sometimes it is the case that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, NIV). Sometimes all you can do is block continued abusiveness online, and celebrate all the others who enjoy the common love of books, and all the different ways we love them. That’s actually pretty good, and often, pretty good is good enough.


Review: Cultural Apologetics

cultural apologetice.jpg

Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted WorldPaul M. Gould, foreword by J. P. Moreland. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.

Summary: Contends that in our disenchanted post-modern world, the apologist needs to engage in a culturally aware apologetic that appeals to goodness, truth, and beauty.

One thing anyone engaged in Christian witness for any length of time in a western cultural setting will tell you is that the landscape has changed. While the message of the gospel has not changed, the culture in which the message is shared has. Paul Gould’s one word description of that change is “disenchantment.” From a world shot through with the presence and majesty of God, the embrace of materialism and naturalism as all-encompassing accounts of the world results in a sense of the absence and irrelevance of God, and a culture that is sensate, focused on the physical senses, and hedonistic, focused on our desires. I found this intriguing, particularly considering the growing fascination with dystopian apocalypses, and conversely,  with fantasy and alternate worlds, that might suggest a longing for re-enchantment or despair of its possibility.

Gould contends that in this context, there is still a place for apologetics, but not that of past generations, focused exclusively on rational evidences, although these still have a place in Gould’s proposal. Gould contends for what he calls as cultural apologetics. By this, he means the “work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying (italics in text).”

The author believes that a cultural apologetic that does this appeals to a universal longing for truth, goodness, and beauty. It is an apologetic that appeals to the longing of truth through reason (voice), that appeals to the longing of goodness through conscience, and that appeals to the longing for beauty through the imagination. The aim of this to foster the awakening of desire (satisfying) and a return to reality (truth) that constitutes a “re-enchantment” eventuating in the decision to trust and follow Christ.

Gould focuses a chapter each on imagination, reason, and conscience, employing C.S. Lewis’s approach of both “looking at,” and “looking along,” the latter considering the reality to which truth, goodness, and beauty point. The chapter on imagination draws upon Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care (reviewed here), that makes the case for how beauty may open the hearts of people to faith, exemplified in Masaaki Suzuki’s recognition that the music of Bach is a kind of “fifth gospel” that has led to interest in or the embrace of Christianity among many Japanese. The chapter on reason contends there is a case to be made for recovering the lost art of persuasion and sounds at first glance the most conventional of the three. However, Gould moves beyond classic arguments to appeal to the plausibility structures and sacred cores of one’s hearers. The appeal to conscience addresses the longings for goodness, wholeness, justice, and significance and seeks to demonstrate in practice and examples how Christianity has made the world a better place and why that is so.

Addressing barriers to belief is an important part of this approach. It includes the internal barriers of anti-intellectualism, fragmentation, and unbaptized imagination within the Christian community. It also involves the external barriers of the belief that science disproves God, that objects to the exclusivity of Jesus, that believes God is not good, and considers the ethic of the Bible archaic, repressive, and unloving. Gould offers brief responses to each of these barriers and then describes the “journey home” from initial enchantment through disenchantment to re-enchantment as we join the “dance of God.”

One of the things I appreciated about this work amid the strains of anti-intellectualism in significant swaths of evangelicalism was the affirmation of intellectual leadership. He writes, “If we are to be strategic in our cultural apologetic, we must work to cultivate Christian leadership and a Christian presence within the halls of the academy. The perceived reasonableness and desirability of Christianity depends upon how effectively we accomplish this task” (p. 143).

I also appreciate the integrated appeal to goodness, truth, and beauty. It seems that we often prefer one of these to the inclusion. If reasoning about truth alone is not helpful, abandon it for beauty or goodness. Gould recognizes that to be human means we long for all three. Also, the posture of culture care, as opposed to culture clash assumes that people are drawn by desire rather than overcome by arguments.

Finally, Gould reframes rather than retreats from the apologetic task. It seems to me that this is vital in an age where many are not merely indifferent to Christianity but vigorously opposed, and willing to make a case against the Christian faith. He reframes apologetics in a way that challenges the church to live into its heritage: to abandon trivial banality for a rich artistic imagination, to abandon a slovenly anti-intellectualism for vibrant intellectual engagement, and to abandon moral compromise for a fragrant goodness. It seems to me this would be good both for the church and the world.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.